published in Das Spiel und seine Grenzen Passagen des Spiels II
von Mathias Fuchs und Ernst Strouhal
2010 Springer Wien New York
How would a gaming environment be defined today? What are its rules, space and time constraints? What forms a contemporary “magic circle” of play, and what questions it? In the late fifties, early sixties the classic thinkers of play, Johan Huizinga and Roger Caillois set certain criteria and presuppositions for it, regarding for example its rules and limitations, its relation to everyday life, its social and non-productive character (Caillois 1958/2001: 43, Huizinga 1955: 13). The gaming environments of our times however, continuously evolving into the digital sphere, provoke our thinking with regard to the formation of a contemporary definition of play as they open up to a brand new field of ambiguous possibilities and outcomes. As we are diving deeper and deeper not only into times of online interconnectivity but also into a state of interdependence between players, providers and environments, play’s role is changing and is being transformed. Where does this lead play? Who are the players and who are the cheaters? What are in reality play’s main features and how can they be re-vindicated in a virtual world?
Re-defining play in the era of the space of flows
A lot has changed in our perception of play since its territory, the playground, occupied the digital sphere. Digital play, following the evolution of the internet the last two decades came to constitute one of the expressions of our contemporary networked world, and an afterbirth of the evolutions and changes that occurred since we entered what Manuel Castells actually framed as the Network Society, an era based on the space of flows that fragmented places but connected distances (1996). In the nineties, the era of the MUDs and the MOOs for gaming, the change became apparent. Embracing interaction, role playing and sociality, players were intrigued to compete, to collaborate, to achieve missions and goals, for the first time from a distance. This new distanced play, that was to evolve into the 3D online gaming worlds, was promising a new kind of presence that would revive social interaction involving physicality and immediacy like no other media had achieved before (Scola 2007:2).
The massively multiplayer 3D online gaming worlds and the virtual environments connected more than geographical areas and responded to more than a need to play and to interact. They actually came to remotely connect a new multitude of players, consisting of individuals, subjectivities dispersed around the world. Players in the era of the Network Society, were now part of the general multicultural, diverse and heterogenous multitude that started characterising the new formation of society itself. Within this context, players needed to cover two needs of our contemporary times, the need to form one’s identity and to differ on one hand and the need to be social, to connect and to belong on the other. For this reason, the online gaming worlds can not be seen as mere playgrounds. Apart from fields of interactivity, competition, and joy they have also become significant popular public spaces where players can meet, play, socialise, feel at home. They are actually shelters, “common spaces” as Virno describes the new territories the multitude is in need of, offering participants the opportunity to feel the sense of belonging that was lost when localities dispersed (2004).
But where do the players “belong” today? To a game community? To the company that “controls” the world? To an interconnected web world? The parameters have greatly changed and blurred since the days Huizinga wrote the following definition:
“Play is a free activity standing quite consciously outside ordinary life as being not serious but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it. It proceeds within its own boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner. It promotes the formation of social groupings which tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress their difference from the common world by disguise or other means.” (Huizinga 1955: 13)
Today rather, the following could be noted:
– There is no outside of the real life anymore. There is only a leakage between the virtual and the real, a fusion between avatars and real personas ( Iborg 2009).
– Games are not opposed to real world; they rather are based on what we are missing from the real world, on our biggest fantasies and wishes; they are complementary adventurous sides of it, not against it.
– Time and space limitations have become relative. They no longer refer only to game sessions to be won or to be lost. They mostly refer to time invested by players, spaces built by players, time and spaces exploited by third parties.
– Rules still sovereign. Even when not spoken, they are always implied. Avatars succumb to rules and constraints regarding behaviors and actions, just like in real life, so that order is facilitated and the structure of the world is maintained.
– Play has become productive. Not only players can gain real money out of virtual money but also play itself constitutes a commodity practiced by the players, counted in energy and time, exploited by the market.
– Sociality is encouraged and affection is embraced. People do not just play, they also interact, communicate and share in the virtual environments; they inhabit, populate and support the gaming worlds.
Re-discussing the battle between game and play
Considering the points above, it could be suggested that there is a contemporary game frame, a game grid behind the virtual worlds. Rules, constraints, sociality, loss, gain: it’s all a part of the game. The question however is: Is there real play? What happened to the play instinct’s vivid and anarchic features? Callois in his “Man, Play and Games” book explains that games were formed from the institutionalization of play, from the application of rules. The playful side of play, “paidia”, an indivisible principle, common to diversion, turbulence, free improvisation and carefree” seems to have lost the game from “ludus”, the principle bound with “arbitrary, imperative and purposely tedious conventions”. Naturally, the rational western civilization favored the politicized, ruled form of play, and steadily marginalised paidia. (1958/2001: 13). The world of games matched better than the world of play to the contemporary society, a position that Wark extensively describes in Gamer Theory, approaching the world itself as a gamespace (2007) or as Castronova writes in his Exodus to the Virtual World : “Games are… are social institutions. Games are a perfect environment for creating play, but also they appear under other circumstances. Elections… stock markets… wars are games” ( 2007: 100,101).
The virtual environments of our times therefore can be seen as social institutions with social, political and economic values resembling those of real life. A new reading on Gadamer’s position on play can be considered given such facts: “The player does not play the game. The game plays the player… the experience of play becomes an experience changing the person who experiences it. Play has its own essence, independent of the consciousness of those who play. Play also exists indeed properly where there are no subjects who are behaving playfully” (1960/1982: 82). Although Gadamer as a phenomenologist was speaking of the independency of play’s existence and powerfulness, today this excerpt can also be read as the possible sovereignty of a game over the players and a call for a need for new active players who can behave playfully.
A call for active players brings to the foreground a call for awareness and critical thinking, a need to break through constraints and rules not in order to ruin the game, but in order to re-vindicate what was part of the play game continuum in the first place. It is play’s vivid and anarchic character that is being claimed back; play’s power as a disposition with no foreseen outcomes. As Malarby writes play’s openness and unpredictability that connects directly to human practices and social processes, can easily disappear when it is left out in favor of materiality or representation. And play’s unpredictability is crucial as it carries the possibility of incremental or even radical change; it carries the readiness to improvise and therefore the readiness to be equipped to act as a social actor that can affect events (Malarby 2008: 4).
Rethinking modes of subversion
The readiness for improvisation, intervention and change from the side of the players and the taking of a position as “social actors” for the worlds players are living in, is a process of appropriation and subversion that has been greatly associated to the situationistic term of detournement, “an act whereby play grasps and reunites beings and things hitherto frozen solid in a hierarchy of fragments” (Vaneigem 1967). The situationists criticizing the spectacle had seen in play the possibility to create new ludic ambiances, situations that would transform reality. Talking more about “livers”, rather than actors as the later could reflect spectacle participation from their point of view, they were calling for a development of acts and interventions by the people through play that would change the real world itself.
Who would these players then be in today’s reality? Back in the 60’s, Raoul Veneigem wrote that it was really from art that play broke free, referring to the Dada and the radical playful spirit of the movement. Confronting the “spectacle” a need for an art form was expressed that would break through and do more than awake the attention; it would destroy hierarchies and embrace participation (1967).
In our times, if the contemporary gaming platforms can be considered also as a form of post-modern spectacle, forms of interventions and situations are then needed to reverse and to assign a new character to this condition. Since the nineties and the emergence of the gaming worlds, a scene of artists has started taking an active role in the gaming environments, observing their features and practicing forms of critique and resistance within them. Challenging stereotypes, offering new ways of reading and understanding, breaking the constraints, art merged with activism, philosophy, politics and social sciences, seems to have been taking the role of the animator, the hacker, the player – “liver” today.
Intervening in online gaming territories
The live performances and interventions made by artists in virtual environments reflect certain features of performance art and the interventions that started being expressed back in the 60’s. Having a rather unconventional, un-institutionalized and subversive character, the acts performed today in the virtual spaces mostly oppose or protest against established situations and systems. Interrupting part of the flow, surprising the people, or rather in this case the avatars, they address to them directly in unforeseen and intimate ways, calling for their attention and critical consciousness in order to break down the barriers of a social, art and game system at the same time. Tactics of opposition, subversion and critique are used to tackle issues that may refer equally to the virtual or real sphere and the controversial features with possible social or political implications that may affect both realities. Gameworlds seem to be for the artists public spaces where words can be spoken and actions can be taken that may make a difference for the new multitude of players.
“Reality is up for grabs. The real needs to be remade by us”
Anne Marie Schleiner
The online world was seen from the start as a possibilities cosmos where the roles taken, the characters embodied and the stories lived could express situations and reveal realities in unexpected ways. Even from the period of the MOOs, artists as Antoinette LaFarge started organising cyberperformances within the textual virtual worlds that had political references. While text-based worlds were embracing and encouraging fantasy play, artists then were interested to experiment with new directions that would merge reality within it. With the transition however to worlds of simulation, fantasy started being replaced by an emphasis on a rather realistic model for the game environments. The emergence and success of online war games offered a new powerful platform for interaction and communication for the players, but at the same time, it brought new questions in the foreground regarding issues of ethics, politics, propaganda and exploitation lying behind play structures. Artists like Anne Marie Schleiner, Brody Condon and Joan Leandre who initiated Velvet Strike in 2002, aimed to change the perception for the players within such worlds. Their intervention on the network shooter terrorism game “Counter – Strike”, a game where players were either terrorists or counter – terrorists and in a period that Bush had started the Afghanistan war, was a call to the players to change their thinking not only towards real facts or a real war, but also towards the gamespace itself and the way they interact within it. Inviting players to submit and install “spray – paints” in the game instead of shooting, they wished to break down the realistic features of a shooter game like competing, shooting and to provoke discussions and reactions among players. Leaning more towards reality, Joseph DeLappe in 2006 decided to intrude America’s Army, the well known game used as a recruiting tool from the U.S. The artist saw his act as a memorial for the thousands of US soldiers who died in the war of Iraq. Using the simplest way to interact, surprise and disrupt the gameplay, he has been logging in the game as “dead-in-iraq”, typing names of the soldiers who died in the war and reminding thus players that they might actually be training for a war that can get them killed in reality.
Acting as alerts, as awakenings, as reminders these projects disrupted the usual flow of the gameplay. However, players’ reactions have not been necessarily positive. As it has been noted by the artists of the above mentioned projects, players have even shown rage through their emails and chats, complaining about these interruptions that ruin all the fun of the game for them. But, these reactions came as no surprise as artists themselves have said (DeLappe 2006: 149). Acts of remembrance, consciousness and disobedience can only occur by provoking the public opinion and raising awareness.
“The only response to injustice is to fight”
Second Life Liberation Army
Although not clear who is behind the Second Life Liberation Army, their positions have been considered important for the activist world of Second Life. Their main question was direct and simple : How can a world, even a virtual one, that calls its users “residents”, inviting them to build their own world with their own imagination, allow no rights to them? Claiming democracy and the right for the avatars to vote, SLLA turned against real companies opening branches in second life as well as against extreme right and neofascist groups that were appearing in Second Life. SLLA’s actions however, after almost two years of action slowly paced down -although it has not ceased-, possibly because users were not interested in claiming rights for their virtual selves despite the emphasis they put on their online persona. In a world populated by idealised versions of real life identities, what possibilities are there for the players to avoid the narcissist side of play, to break free from it and to claim an active role for the formation of the online environment?
Gazira Babeli’s performances in Second Life in the last few years seem to be targeting to a great extent the issue of identity. Negating a real life identity – that is not presenting any real name behind the avatar’s name – Babeli acts as a code performer avoiding all the clichés being imposed by the real world. Playing with skins, performing scripts of an uncontrollable behavior, replicating and multiplying pop icons, Babeli questions the appearances, modes of behavior, trends and ideas of Second Life which is in reality a construction of polygons and codes (Quaranta 2008 ). Second Front, an avatar performance group in Second Life in which Babeli also takes part, work on a similar direction with performances that oppose certain features and situations of the virtual environments, implying the elements that might lie behind. With irony and humor, Second Front have attacked the treasury of Lynden Lab – written with y and having as a footprint logo – or they have captured, interrogated and harassed avatars as if they would be illegal immigrants. Playing between the virtual and the real world, showing how the former is a replica of the latter, Second Front seem to remind players that escapes of replicating mentalities also need to be found.
Performances and interventions create tensions and confusions. Babeli herself has said that she has had to apologise in various languages (Babeli 2009). As performers merge with their audience – that is often even unaware of being “audience” – all reactions are spontaneous and real. Maybe users to a great extent do not enjoy these disruptions that destroy the idealised picture of themselves and surroundings on these worlds. A ritualistic performance by Brody Condon back in 2001 called Worship, had already shown that. Condon then within a massively multiplayer online game environment, had turned his avatar worshipping him, the controller – user, for weeks. Condon’s narcissist but also cynical and ironic performance that outraged lots of players back then, prophesied what was to follow in the mentality of the players.
“Store the clothes in your bag so that it might be donated later”
The third fraction
In times where emphasis is put on forming and exhibiting one’s identity and virtual persona, is there room for real sociality and care among players? /hug by the Third Fraction can be seen as an example of a game intervention moving towards his direction. /hug mostly practiced in the World of Warcraft but also in Second Life is an initiative by artists that aim to question the conventions, allegiances and politics of the synthetic worlds and to introduce different values and ideas. Inspired by Hakim Bay’s TAZ, the team of artists describe their formation as a self-declared temporary autonomous zone. Seeking for the sense of psychic nomadism in virtual environments where liberated uncontrolled areas could also exist, the artists have encouraged an anarchist form of collaboration, as they call it, where strong players would help the weak newbies to survive by fulfilling certain missions. If as Pat Kane argues, play and care form an indispensable duo for our network society with play allowing us to imagine our world and care allowing us to relate to the emotions and sensitivities of others, then the /hug project could be considered as an initiative for a new type of network of players that would support collaborative and social play (Kane, 2004: 171 – 175).
Attempts have also been made in the virtual worlds to raise players’ awareness and social interest for real facts, incidents and tragedies of the contemporary world. A good example of such a direction would be Camp Darfur that had the aim to create a simulation that would partly reflect the genocide of the refugees. Such activist projects take into consideration the power of immediacy game environments present as platforms to communicate serious issues. However, the problem that has to be faced by creating replica spaces of traumatized events and spaces is that users do not find what to do there; interaction is somehow cancelled leaving only exploration as an option causing players to lose interest.
To escape this latter outcome, and aiming to involve players in order to associate with a contemporary aspect of play, its commodification, a phenomenon of the era of ludocapitalism as Dibbell framed it, a team of artists decided to create cloth sweatshops within Second Life (Dibbell 2006: 297). Invisible threads initiated by Stephanie Rothenberg, Jeff Crouse and Annie OK tackles the future of labor that will involve gaming and virtuality. The artists switching back from the postfordist production model to the fordist one , show the virtual metaphor of a factory. In an era where play becomes the driving force for new means of production, economic value and exploitation, the founding of this factory can be seen as a direct statement on the current condition of play and the danger of exploitation it runs.
Forming tactics of exodus and profanity
Vaneigem in his Revolution of Everyday Life quotes Debord:”Normally, the things that happen to us, things which really do involve us and demand our attention, leave us no more than bored and distant spectators. However, almost any situation, once it has been transposed artistically, awakens our attention: we want to take part in it, to change it. This paradox must be turned upside down – put back on its feet.” and he explains that “the forces of the artistic spectacle must be dissolved and their equipment pass into the arsenal of individual dreams. Once armed in this way, there will no longer be any question of treating them as fantasies. This is the only way in which the problem of making art real can be seen.” (Vaneigem 1967)
What the gaming worlds are in need of, is not a new form of contemporary artistic spectacle. Virtual environments today are full of art simulated and replicated. Such forms of art either in the forms of exhibitions, screenings or even events hardly meet the interest of the public. On the contrary, performances and interventions with a subversive character and critical thinking that connote social and political issues either for the virtual sphere or for the real world can provoke changes in the perception of the users. Although players’ reactions might be negative or hesitant, the important aspect is the possibility of surprising, raising awareness and giving birth to discussions.
Players need room in order to make the next move, to be able to act in a spontaneous and unpredictable manner when needed (Kane 2004: 112). To make this room, active players are needed and this is a role that can be undertaken by artists at first. As art and play are both based on elements of originality, autonomy and freedom, art just like play enhances the potential for a readiness to improvise that Malarby talks about.
Play’s nature embraces also the right to disobey, to cheat, to resist, to exit. An exit strategy is possibly what is needed from current forms of today’s play that relate to exhibitionism, exploitation, that will make room for the elements of sociality, care, freedom and joy. “Nothing is more active than fleeing!”, as Gilles Deleuze and Claire Parnet wrote (1980). Fleeing, exiting is not about quitting but rather about a form of disobedience and resistance towards an exploitation of creativity by third parties. (Lovink, 2007; Virno 2007).
Or, to apply de Certeau’s thought on virtual environments, it is actually about strategies being applied and tactics that are being performed (de Certeau 1984: 34- 37). Strategies, in the context discussed here, are to be found in the systems of orders imposed by the companies behind games and tactics in the ways artists and active players find to break through the system. While the strategies of the companies form the game and define its rules, the tactics applied by users aim to reverse the system, to question its formalisms and structures, to hack it. Users’ playfulness and creativity can still stand out as forms of resistance. The play ethic, as Pat Kane puts it, in the complex era of the networks, can encourage participants to become players with actions based on communication, care and interaction (Kane 2004: 95 – 133).
In 2009 I have had the great opportunity to meet personally Raoul Vaneigem and discuss about the notions and ideas the Situationists expressed in the 60’s and 70’s. When I asked his opinion on the expansive use of their ideas in today’s game theory, he expressed his concern about the dubious relation there is between current artistic practices based on play and life itself. Do we forget about life? I then wondered. Yes, in some cases, it is not in the picture anymore. But in projects such as the ones mentioned above, which aim for awareness, awakening and change for the individuals that live in this mixed reality, where work, life and play become one, where rules are implied if not imposed and subjectivity is being enforced while also being exploited, I think that for such endeavours life is still the element emphasis is put on, and playful tactics through art are a ray of hope for the gaming worlds and the situations to come.
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References to artists and projects
Brody Condon: “Worship”, 2001
Joseph DeLappe : “dead-in-iraq” 2006 – ongoing
Antoinette LaFarge: “Plaintext Players” , 1994 – 2004
Second Life Liberation Army
Stephanie Rothenber, Jeff Crouse with Annie Ok: “Invisible Threads/ 10 Steps to your own virtual sweatshop” , 2008
Anne Marie Schleiner, Joan Leandre and Brody Condon: “Velvet Strike”, 2002
The Third Fraction: “/hug” 2009
 MUD is Multi-User Dungeon whereas MOO is an MUD Object Oriented. They are both multiuser virtual environments, real time and online respectively.